Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Congratulations to mfantaliswrites of A Writer's Notepad for being the lucky random winner of Pamela Mingle's marvelous The Pursuit of Mary Bennet.
As always, it was great fun to host a giveaway and meet a bunch of new readers and writers who visited my site to read the review and enter the giveaway.
Monday, December 09, 2013
Apart from my collection of Austen-inspired short stories, Intimations of Austen, I also have written a number of non-Austen-related stories. My favorite of these is from 2001 and I called it The Perfect Christmas Tree.
Here's how it starts...
The Perfect Christmas Tree
By Jane GreensmithCopyright © 2001.All rights reserved.
When Carl asked her to work the yard on Saturdays starting the weekend after Thanksgiving, Kim didn't even hesitate. It wasn't like she had much Christmas shopping to do since her parents had died and her sisters had moved away, not to mention she had no money for Christmas presents anyway. Her job at the bookstore didn't pay much, and what little money was left over after taxes, food, and gas went to keeping the bookstore in business by making ample use of her twenty-percent discount. Sometimes she felt like a druggie, feeding her habit, but, as her father used to say, "words on a page keep body and soul together even when the pantry is empty and the fridge is bare."
Carl and Cassandra Gibbons owned the farm next to Kim Kaplan's, east of Piñon, Colorado. The Gibbons and Kaplans had been neighbors for over a hundred years, each family trying to eke out a living from the dense clay soil that lay under prairie grass. The families had worked together through fat times and lean. Cassandra Taylor had been Kim's best friend since they had met in diapers thirty-three years ago, and Carl Gibbons had been the only one of Cassandra's boyfriends that Kim could even stand. She sang at their wedding and was godmother to their children. She endured dozens of blind dates they sent her on until finally, three years ago, all parties called a truce and agreed that Kim was just too fussy to be happy with a twentieth-century mate.
Seven years ago, Carl had asked Kim to lease him a portion of her land. The government was offering a sweet deal—free evergreen seedlings to anyone who was willing to devote at least forty acres to growing Christmas trees. Kim leased Carl twenty acres and he put up the rest. The twenty acres Kim had leased was now all she had left. The rest of it was tied up in litigation with Michael Zekendorf Homes—Kim had sold most of the farm to the development company two years ago after her father died, only to watch them file chapter eleven within three months. The court sold the Kaplan land to pay off Michael Zekendorf's other debts, and the lawsuit in which she was suing to get either her money or her land was moving through the courts at glacial speed. Meanwhile, Kim was living on soup and wearing lots of sweaters so that she didn't need to turn on the heat. Now, the Gibbons Christmas Tree Farm was finally able to start selling the trees Carl had planted seven years earlier and maybe, just maybe, they would turn a profit this year if Kim helped keep costs down by working the yard with Carl, while Cassandra worked the store.
If you would like to read the rest of the story and find out what Kim thinks is a "perfect" Christmas tree, please go to my website where you will find the complete story of The Perfect Christmas Tree.
Happy Holidays--may your days be merry and bright!
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
Mary Bennet is just such a pill--she is socially awkward, morally pedantic, and unutterably boring. She is little more than a filler character in Jane Austen's masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice, which makes her perfect fodder for a make-over in the realms of Austen-inspired fiction.
Pamela Mingle's new novel, The Pursuit of Mary Bennet, gives Mary a chance to finally shine. Mingle fleshes her out and gives her a story that she renders her still recognizable as Austen's Mary but with heart, depth, and soul that goes far beyond the comic form that Austen gave her.
Most of our favorite P and P characters show up--and it is a sequel, taking place but a few years after the joint wedding in which Mr. and Mrs. Bennet saw their two eldest daughters married--with Lydia and Kitty playing major roles in the story, and Jane and Lizzy now in more of the supporting cast roles. In many ways, Mary's story parallels the Lizzy/Darcy arc and in lesser ways Kitty's story parallels the Jane/Bingley arc, but while marriage is the focus of the story (and in what self-respecting Regency Romance would this not be the case?), I was very happy to see that Mary's growth as a character was complex and the result of several forces not just the desire to be married and loved.
In The Pursuit of Mary Bennet, I think that Mingle has a very good handle on what makes Mary who she is in P and P:
I 'd always believed I would remain a spinster. I would disappoint as a wife. I had not the easy compliance, the ability to defer to a husband, and worst of all, I lacked beauty, conduct, and, at times, even common sense.The difference in stories is that in her novel, Mingle makes Mary self-aware and through that self-awareness she is able to change in the ways she needs to in order become a vibrant, interesting character and not merely a caricature.
I would like to quote another passage that really demonstrates the growth of Mary--without giving away too much of the plot, Mary cares for Lydia's newborn daughter, Felicity, and becomes very attached to her:
I was not Felicity's mother, and yet my whole being cried out that I was. That it was not right for Lydia to separate me from her. When I had arrived at Longbourn after Fee's birth, broken and dispirited, it was Fee who made me whole again. She who, by the mere fact of her existence, showed me how I might get on with my life. Felicity had proved to me that no matter how low one's spirits may sink, life holds something in safekeeping to present at the most fortuitous moment. She had filled the emptiness in me with her innocent and trusting love, and I prayed I had given her that gift in return.I really enjoyed The Pursuit of Mary Bennet, and would like to share it with others.
I have an uncorrected proof copy (not for sale) that the author has provided for a giveaway. This is open worldwide, and to enter merely leave a comment along with your email address. The giveaway closes at 8 pm on Tuesday, December 10.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
There just aren't that many Thanksgiving stories, even though so many people name it as their favorite holiday, so I leaped at the chance to download Ellen Cooney's wonderful novel, Thanksgiving, earlier this fall. I read it slowly, not more than a chapter a day, and often not even that. It was warm and interesting and an exceptionally good book for October/November.
Thanksgiving lends itself to this kind of slow savoring because of its structure. Each chapter takes place in a different year, and chronicles a family, the Morleys of Massachusetts, from Pilgrim days to 2012, as its members, usually the women, prepare for the coming Thanksgiving feast. I love this idea, which is somewhat similar to the Edward Rutherford books I enjoy so much--he, however, spends more time at each stop along his journey through time, whereas Cooney devotes just one short chapter to each year she visits. Often characters straddle chapters, so that a baby who is born in one chapter, shows up as a young adult in the next, and then a grandpa or grandma in the third.
I confess that I found the first third of the book a bit hard to read. It's written in present tense, which can be a bit challenging anyway, but in the early chapters Cooney had a penchant for jumping into the middle of a scene and relaying the internal musing of her main character. There were times when it took me awhile to figure out what the heck was going on, and then the chapter was over and I had to learn about a new character in a new time all over again. However, about a third into the book, it clicked for me and I found the rhythm and groove of the narrative and I was able to really enjoy each visit to the family as they marched through time.
The pace really picked up after the Civil War, and I could relate more to the characters and their Thanksgiving stories. I especially loved the chapter in which the character Emily makes pies in the early twentieth century. Cooney did some really outstanding, lyrical writing in that chapter and moved me to tears with her words. Other memorable chapters are those when the dishes arrive from England and when the glasses arrive from an estranged husband. Mostly though, the stories are about food--finding it, growing it, preparing it, serving it. The bonds that are forged in the kitchen, at the hearth, are ones that can withstand hardship, loss, and time.
Cooney did a wonderful job of linking together the characters and their traditions and foods, all within the same house, even though many of the later characters didn't know who their ancestors were.
Thanksgiving is a marvelous book that reflects the holiday perfectly--it is about family, traditions, home, and evolution, It makes me think of the saying by Heraclitus — 'No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.'
A holiday like Thanksgiving, a family like the Morleys, evolves but some things remain constant, just as some things about a river are constant, regardless of what constitutes it at any one instant of time.
I can see myself rereading this book every fall, in anticipation of our great American holiday. Now I'm eager to see what else Cooney has written.
Monday, November 18, 2013
I recently reached my GoodReads goal of reading 55 books in 2013. I'm now at 56 books, and feel like I have a few good reading weeks ahead of me before getting swallowed by the holidays.
I haven't been doing quite as well blogging about everything I've been reading. Sometimes there's not a lot to say, and sometimes there's so much that I almost feel overwhelmed by it. So let's take the catalog approach.
The Red Queen and The King Maker's Daughter, by Philippa Gregory - I enjoyed The White Queen so much more than either. I found Margaret Beaufort, the Red Queen, to be one of the most maddeningly hypocritical heroines ever. My biggest regret with regards to the War of the Roses is that Margaret was not ultimately defeated. The fact that her precious son, Henry, founded the Tudors still rankles. I got two-thirds done with The KingMakers Daughter, about Anne Neville, and found I just didn't have the heart to finish it. I much prefer the Anne of Sunne in Splendour--Gregory's Anne was whiny and dull and unsympathetic.
The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, by Mark Obmascik - somehow over the past several months, my husband and I have transitioned from being mildly interested in birds to being birders. It started with the owls that took up residence across the street from our house in the open space, and soon we were trying to identify birds on our hikes. We watched The Big Year, starring Steve Martin, et al, and enjoyed it thoroughly. So got the book and read it. It was fun, interesting, and inspired us to buy binoculars, field guides, and start going on 7:30 am birding tours on Saturday morning courtesy of our local wild bird center. I now have a bird feeder outside my office window and have been spying on the feeding habits of Mountain Chickadees, American Goldfiches, House Sparrows, House Finches, Blue Jays, Northern Flickers, to name a few. My rarest bird to date is the Barred Owl we spotted two Sundays ago at Point Defiance on Puget Sound when we were visiting our daughter who goes to school up there. Can you spell N-E-R-D?
Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear - what a wonderful treat this book was to read! I thoroughly enjoyed it--from the setting pre and post-WWI in London, to the charmingly interesting character, Maisie herself. I actually found myself more interested in her backstory, which comprised the whole middle section of the book, rather than the mystery itself. I will definitely be reading more books in this series.
Winter in Thrush Green, by Miss Read - as a card-carrying Janeite, it's a bit surprising that this is my first Miss Read tale of life in a quiet country village in England, circa 1950. A stranger moves to the village, lots of gossip ensues, winter drags on, gallons of tea are consumed, and life goes on. I listened to this book, and enjoyed it. It was a nice break from reality and a perfect escape book...
...which leads me to the book I am currently reading:
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote - to say this book is unsettling is an understatement. I have wanted to read it for years, but only just got up the nerve. My husband says that the scariest movie he ever watched was Schindler's List, because it was based on a true story. I haven't read a lot of scary books, but this is the one that has kept me up at night the most, not from reading it but from thinking about it. The story itself is truly horrible, but Capote's clinical style coupled with the structure has made it definitely unsettling. I'm almost done--I hope to finish it tonight. It is good, an American classic, but very tough to read.
So how's that for potpourri--a bit of this and a bit of that?
Monday, November 11, 2013
After Alice Munroe was awarded this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, I read a number of reviews of her work in general. She's a short story writer, and I like short stories. She's Canadian, as is my mother, and I've always felt a bit feeble for not having read more Canadian authors. Her stories were reputed to be of the commonplace, the everyday, the unsung--I tend to like stories like this.
So, I stopped in at the library and picked up the only book left on her shelf--I clearly wasn't the only person who decided to see why Munroe was awarded a Nobel Prize. The book I read was The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose--a collection of stories about Rose and her step-mother Flo, and published as a collection in 1991.
I'm not sure this was the best introduction to Munroe because frankly I didn't think the stories were that good. They span a period of about 40 years--from when Rose is a young child to when Flo is elderly, suffering from dementia, and in a nursing home and Rose is middle-aged and trying to make the right decisions regarding caring for her. Neither woman is very appealing--neither demonstrates qualities that I admire--and their stories are uniformly dull. That said, Munroe is an excellent writer--she has a quiet, deft touch with words, a spareness that is elegant, and an honest, unflinching manner. She is not coy.
I wanted to love these stories, but I didn't. Actually, it crossed my mind that Rose is somewhat like Anne of Green Gables, but without the rosy patina of fancy that L.M. Montgomery scattered over her creation. They are both isolated and adrift as young children, craving love, nursing ambition, dreaming big. But Rose's life is gritty and grubby, mean-spirited, and selfish. She looks for love, but discards it without actually letting it envelope her. Flo has the harsh exterior of Marilla but without the big heart and sterling core. I'm not sure if I would've thought to compare Anne and Rose if they both hadn't been from Canada--I think maybe, but the Canadian roots made the comparison inevitable for me.
I have another Alice Munroe waiting on my TBR shelf--Dear Life--a much more recent collection of stories. I hope I like it better. I really want to love Munroe's work!
Thursday, November 07, 2013
I've cleaned some books out recently, and so felt justified in bringing some new ones into the fold.
Here's some of my latest acquisitions.
Ragtime and March, both by E.L. Doctorow - I don't know why I've never read anything by Doctorow, as it seems like he writes the kind of stuff I like to read. I hope to rectify that soon and so got two of his novels. Ragtime is the definitive Doctorow, I believe, but March has the Civil War connection, so it also caught my interest.
The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton - I love the premise of this novel and have read enough good reviews that I'm willing to give it a try.
Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte - I really want to read The Lady and the Luddite, by internet friend Linden Salter, and I wanted to read the book that inspired it.
The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister - I gave this as a Christmas last year and my sister-in-law enjoyed it and lent it to me to read.
Dear Life, by Alice Munro -winner of the Man Booker prize, and I love short stories anyway.
Vivaldi's Virgins, by Barbara Quick - I love reading about Venice, and there seem to be several books about Vivaldi and his girls, and this had the best reviews. Here's what Amazon had to say about it:
Abandoned as an infant, fourteen-year-old Anna Maria dal Violin is one of the elite musicians living in the foundling home where the "Red Priest," Antonio Vivaldi, is maestro and composer. Fiercely determined to find out where she came from, Anna Maria embarks on a journey of self-discovery that carries her into a wondrous and haunting world of music and spectacle, bringing eighteenth-century Venice magically to life.
So many books...so little time!
Sunday, November 03, 2013
Several years ago I read a review of The Testament of Mariam, by Ann Swinfen, and then an interview with the author on Fly High. Afterwards, I was offered a copy of book by the author, and I accepted and then let it sit on the shelf until it made it to this year's TBR Pile Challenge list.
This is easily one of the best books I've read in 2013. It is the story of Jesus as told by his sister, Mariam. It is one of those historical novels that absolutely feels right--the tone, the level of detail, the dialogue, the themes, and the perspectives all ring true. I loved reading about the life in a Jewish village in Gallilee, circa 2000 years ago. And the story was fresh and interesting, being told from a woman's perspective and a sibling's perspective.
Yeshûa is the oldest in a large family, and Mariam is twelve years younger. She adores her older brother, and struggles to understand how his "mission" must take him away from her and her family and their village. It was lovely to read scenes that I know from the Bible being presented in a very natural, non-stilted way.
The story is told by Mariam when she is an old woman, living with her children and grandchildren in Massilia (modern Marseilles), where she fled after her brother was killed. She had been part of his inner circle, and he had made preparations for her to leave the region after he was arrested.
It took me until mid-way through to realize that Yehûdâ, Mariam's betrothed and Yeshûa's best and oldest friend, was Judas Iscariot--I hadn't remembered this part of the review/interview. Once I realized this, the entire novel took on an even more melancholy but even deeper tone. I did a little internet reading about the Gospel of Judas, and that made the novel make even more sense to me.
I absolutely loved reading this book--it is extremely well-written, well-researched, and balanced. It never felt preachy, but it conveyed perfectly for me the idea of Jesus's messsage of love and hope, reverence for God and nature, and compassion and community.
Regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof, it is a marvelous historical novel with a strong, believable heroine whose choices and sacrifices are both heart-breaking and ennobling.
If your are curious about the book, I encourage you to read her interview here.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
I hadn't intended to read The Vicar of Wakefield this year, but needed something to fill out my Back to the Classics challenge once I finally realized the Sir Walter Scott's novel Waverley wasn't actually published in the 18th century but in the 19th. I scanned my bookshelves, saw that I had a copy of Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, and promptly decided to listen to it, courtesy of LibriVox instead of reading it.
It's a good thing I went this route because had I not, I probably wouldn't have finished it. I downloaded the chapters to my iphone and listened over a period of months on a few walks and train rides--it's not terribly long, and truthfully, not terribly interesting. Well, that's not even true--a lot happens plotwise, eventually, but Dr. Primrose, the Vicar himself, is so pedantic, dull, and sanctimonious that it just seems like nothing happens. It takes a Dr. Primrose to take all the fun out of seductions, abductions, betrayals, conflagrations, imprisonments, duels, reversals of fortune, disheritances, and resurrections...but he does! The good doctor (of religion) is a cross between Ward Cleaver, Job, and PandP's Mr. Collins. Reading The Vicar of Wakefield brings out the Lydia Bennet in me!
And yet, I'm glad that I read it, and not just to say that it completes the Back to the Classics challenge for me, optional categories not included. In scouting around the internet a bit, looking for inspiration on what fresh thing I could say about this tired old novel, I discovered, courtesy of Wikipedia, that:
The Vicar of Wakefield is a novel by Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith. It was written in 1761 and 1762, and published in 1766, and was one of the most popular and widely read 18th-century novels among Victorians. The novel is mentioned in George Eliot's Middlemarch, Jane Austen's Emma, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Sarah Grand's The Heavenly Twins, Charlotte Brontë's The Professor and Villette, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, as well as his Dichtung und WahrheitThat's pretty heady company when it comes to fellow readers. I think in my next story, I should have character who reads The Vicar of Wakefield.
FYI, I couldn't find more than one movie version of the book, and it was made in 1917. This does surprise me a bit because there's actually some pretty good plot and characters to draw upon, but then you have to deal with duller-than-dishwater Dr. Primrose, and the pitch falls on its face. Better to do another version of Tom Jones than to tackle the Vicar. At least Tom is interesting.
Can I recommend The Vicar of Wakefield? If you are interested in the history of the novel and want to read what Jane Austen and Emma Woodhouse, as well as Louisa May Alcott and Jo March read, by all means, read on. If you want a riveting tale and a main character you can relate to, I would suggest you give it a pass.
Final note...this post was more fun to write than The Vicar of Wakefield was to read.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
In When Christ and His Saints Slept, the newest addition to her highly acclaimed novels of the middle ages, and the first of a trilogy that will tell the story of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, master storyteller and historian Sharon Kay Penman illuminates one of the less-known but fascinating periods of English history. It begins with the death of King Henry I, son of William the Conqueror and father of Maude, his only living legitimate offspring.